Pause for thought on rural schools

The number of rural primary schools appears to be falling. In the 2015 list published by the DfE there were 4,906 such schools. This year there are just 4,151. However, before anyone rushes to the barricades to defend the remaining rural primary schools against a policy of wholesale closure it is worth remembering that the 2006 Education and Inspections Act that required the government to keep the list of such schools was passed before the programme of mass transformation of our schools to academy status was dreamed up by Mr Gove and more recently seemingly ratified by the White Paper issued this March. Regular readers will recall the resulting furore the idea of compulsory academisation caused, including within the ranks of the Tory party.

With rising rolls in the primary sector, I speculated in my post of the 6th October 2014 on this blog whether it was worth the expenditure on the part of the DfE to continue to produce this list, but so far there hasn’t been any attempt to repeal the relevant section of the 2006 Act. I suppose it was because officials thought once all schools became academies it would automatically fall by the wayside. Now it won’t, at least for a few more years, so it might be worth either bringing all rural schools into the compass of the section or removing it from the statue book since it may offer one more reason why a school shouldn’t become an academy if in doing so it loses this protection against a review against closure.

Scanning the list I am glad to see the two Enfield primary schools remain among the five rural schools within Greater London; two in Enfield; two in Hillingdon and one in Bromley. The location of these schools in the Green Belt does stretch the definition of rural a bit, but I can quite see why they are included.

In am not sure whether Kielder First School in Northumberland is still one of the smallest primary schools in England, but with just 15 pupils according to Edubase it probably remains one of the most expensive on a per pupil basis and shows the challenge facing those wanting to introduce a National Funding Formula. Without a significant block grant element to such a formula, an element Mr Gove once wanted to abolish, such schools as this would close because they would not be financially viable. The cost of transporting the pupils to school each day would then fall on Northumberland County Council. With 78 such rural schools, this cost could be significant but would have to be met by cuts elsewhere in the County’s budget, even without adding in any academies not counted in this list.  However, North Yorkshire, with 227 rural primary schools in the DfE’s list would be hit even more if their schools were affected by a National Funding Formula that didn’t somehow take account of their importance of our rural primary schools for many small isolated communities.

The complex inter-relationships between the government at Westminster and local authorities over the supply of education really does need to be thoroughly considered before and policy changes are made. Not to do so, risk unintended consequences not just for pupils but also for their parents as council tax payers.

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